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Issue #1889      October 9, 2019

GIG economy – Part 2

In Part 1 of this two-part series, Anna Pha interviewed Thomas Costa, assistant secretary of Unions NSW, on the gig economy and the appalling conditions that workers in that sector work under. In this, Part 2, they discuss visa workers and the expansion of the GIG economy into new, higher-skilled fields of work.

Visa workers

Thomas Costa: A lot of local workers just gave up and said we are not going to do it any more. Increasingly more migrant workers started to move in, particularly student migrants. We found when we were out talking to them, we did some surveys, about 70 percent of people in this workforce are on a student visa.

This seems to be common for the gig economy that uses independent contracting. Student-workers have a limitation on how much they can work on their visa. They are only legally allowed to work 20 hours a week. Unfortunately, if you are trying to live in Sydney or Melbourne and trying to live on 20 hours work a week it is virtually impossible. Then you factor in a lot of these workers are underpaid it becomes impossible.

So what they do to supplement their income is independent contracting which is not checked as closely by the government. So you can stay in the country doing a mix of 20 hours of legitimate employment work and then do 10-20 hours of independent contracting in the gig economy, but you are incredibly vulnerable because of that.

The employers know it.

Anna Pha: Do the employers hold it over them?

TC: A lot of them do. When we were out speaking to these riders they were very happy to speak to us, but very concerned about us doing anything on their behalf because it could jeopardise their visa position. That made it a bit difficult.

We also had an activist who had set up one of the WhatsApp groups they used to communicate in Foodora and after working with us a little while Foodora called him into their head office. This is a bike rider who delivers food. They asked him to hand over his WhatsApp group with all his contacts on it!

These companies would never talk to us, but they are very aggressive with their workforce. He refused to give it to them; he was very impressive. They asked him to shut it down. He refused, so they terminated his contract.

We said that was unfair, so the TWU (Transport Workers Union) ended up taking that to the Commission as unfair dismissal. One of the big questions in an unfair dismissal case is whether these workers are employees or independent contractors.

Unfair dismissal

If they are employees you can’t sack them in this way, they have unfair dismissal protection and you probably owe them a lot of money. That case went on for a little while and allowed us to get a lot of media attention on what was going on. Even some of the news stations ran it, such as The Project on Channel 10.

The TWU won that case and Foodora lost, closed their business [in Australia], and left the country with only $5 million in the bank. There was another win out of that. The union was able to contact the workers, put in a claim and get money back. I don’t think they got all of the money that was outstanding to them but I think a few million dollars was returned to workers.

That was Foodora.

Campaign for minimum rights

Our campaign with the riders has not stopped. We are still working with the TWU to organise those workers. The important thing for that campaign is that we are not necessarily seeking for these workers to not to be independent contractors or to be employees. We don’t really care what they are categorised as, that comes from the workers themselves. That’s not what is important to them.

What’s important to them isn’t the semantics, but that they have the same minimum rights, that they have the same minimum rates of pay, they have sick leave, workers’ comp, superannuation – all things they don’t get at the moment.

They do not get them because they’ve been described as independent contractors, they’ve been told that they are running their own business which is ridiculous when you are making $10-$15 an hour.

AP: Do the companies make them take out an ABN?

TC: Yes. They do. So that’s their cover for these companies. But that wasn’t good enough in the Foodora case. The court said that the amount of control you have over these workers shows that they are employees.

But our concern is that these companies could get around this. They could take away that amount of control. But even so, if they were completely free-acting agents, these workers are entirely dependent on these companies and they don’t earn enough to pay their own super, to pay their own workers’ comp, to pay their sick leave.

They should have those things guaranteed.

That’s the problem with other approaches in other places, internationally, that we’ve seen is that if you start the argument that they are not independent contractors, they are employees, then you kind of buy into the argument that independent contractors don’t deserve those rights and we don’t agree with that. We think any worker deserves minimum rights. It doesn’t matter what they call you, because you’re a worker.

Unless you can somehow show that these people are making such large sums of money that they are their own business, we don’t think they are. That’s not the model.

That campaign is still unfolding. It has moved to a real organising model, actually recruiting members still and campaigning.

AP: So there’s really no legal protections for these workers?

TC: No, apart from if you can show that they are not legitimately employed as an independent contractor, then you can kind of bring them into the employment legislation. But if you can’t do that, then there are no protections for them.

We still argue that they should come under the workers’ comp scheme. But at the moment Uber Eats and Deliveroo aren’t providing full workers’ comp entitlements. It is a very dangerous job, as you can imagine. They are riding on the roads, they are probably riding very fast because they want to make sure they get the next shift the following week which depends on how fast they deliver.

If it is a rainy night, you can just imagine what happens with all the traffic in Sydney.

AP: What proportion of the fee would Uber and the other companies keep?

TC: For ride share I’m not sure. I don’t know how much they take in taxi-type services. In terms of food delivery, they take about 30 per cent of the meal price – that goes to the company. On top of that there is an additional $5 or $6 dollar delivery fee. It might have gone up even. I am not sure.

Riders, restaurants, and customers are losers

So no one makes money out of this except the company. The restaurant doesn’t really make money because of the 30 percent taken out of the meal price is really quite high. They don’t make a huge amount of money, if anything at all. They’ve just got to be in it to keep up. Obviously the riders are not making much money at all and the customer is being hit with an additional fee on top of it as well.

There were some people I’ve spoken to who see this kind of move towards food convenience as being linked into a bigger, broader social problem which is that as working hours are increasing, people don’t have time any more to cook and do things at home. So they become more reliant on these kinds of services in order to just get by. It’s a sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy. You have increasing working hours in the traditional economy, workers are staying back at work, they stay longer hours, they come home, they need a quick fix to feed the family, so these Apps are very convenient for them.

Then you have the student migrant workforce that’s very vulnerable, being used to fill the gap in delivering that food in very exploitative conditions. So there’s a bigger picture as to how all of this is interacting in the Australian economy.

We are doing a lot of work with migrant communities at the moment through our Visa Assist program, where we provide immigration services to migrant workers who are union members. We are seeing increasingly that the visa system we have in Australia funnels migrant workers into exploitative work conditions and creates a pseudo guest worker scheme.

Virtual guest worker system

We virtually have in Australia a similar guest worker system to what they have in Dubai, except we don’t call it a guest worker system. We call them student workers, or working holiday visas or 457s, but each of these visas in their own way is being used to funnel these workers into vulnerable situations where they often get underpaid and sometimes mistreated in other ways.

AP: I recently rang a take-away that I have used before to order a delivery of a meal. They told me I had to go online and order through Uber Eats to order it or come to the restaurant and pick it up. As a matter of principle, I had no intention of using Uber Eats so rang another outlet.

TC: This is a good question. There’s been a lot of talk about why the unions didn’t run a boycott campaign. That was mostly driven by the workers, when we first started talking to them they told us they don’t want people boycotting us because they need the work. They need to get out there and deliver.

So what we would prefer is a campaign that lifts our wages and conditions. So that is why we didn’t actively encourage people to boycott these services. If you think about the fact that we know where all their customers are, we could have easily run a boycott campaign. It is not difficult for us to put a flyer in every single Uber Eats bag and every Deliveroo food bag and say don’t buy from us, they are only paying us $5-$10 an hour.

We know where all the customers are which is why these gig companies in this space are quite vulnerable. The same in Uber taxi service, the driver speaks to the customer. So it’s very easy for us if we wanted to, to run a boycott campaign. It might be something that we do in the future if the riders want us to do that. But at the moment they’ve been quite insistent that we try to improve their rights, they need these jobs, they just want to be paid properly and have the proper conditions and safeguards.

Some of the workers we spoke to actually love this job but said it is completely undervalued. There was one who had been doing it for three years who said when he first started that it was a fantastic job. He loved being on his bike and getting out there and delivering. But once they started reducing the rates of pay, it started to become really difficult.

Those are the campaigns that we have been running and done before. We are now starting to look at a new area in the gig economy which is not low skilled work but which is high skilled, qualified work. That is particularly in the care sector, the disability care sector and the aged care sector.

Expansion of gig economy

There are a number of companies moving into that space and there are a number of unions who are getting worried what the interaction of the NDIS and these GIG economy companies could lead to and is leading to gigifying of the care sector where we are seeing companies like Mabel operating like Airtasker but not for low skilled workers, for very high skilled workers, for professionals.

We are watching that and there are a number of unions working in that space already that are trying to minimise any of the negative effects that an happen through that.

AP: That is worrying from a number of points of view – who, for example is responsible for quality of care, that is apart from their working conditions.

TC: According to Mabel, it is all on the professional. They have to get their own insurance and pay for all that. They are sort of taking a very hands-off approach towards having any responsibility for what happens between the carer and the person they are caring for.

You will see workers desperate to get out there and get jobs. They won’t be in a position to say “no” even if it is an unsafe environment. They won’t even be in a position to vet who they are going out to see.

That was what we were really worried about when we first saw Airtasker.

Next article – Curse of the pharaohs hits Trump

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